Hundreds of thousands of doses of AstraZeneca vaccine have been secretly flown to Australia from Britain after the EU blocked exports to the country.
A total of 717,000 doses have been sent, but the source of the shipments was kept quiet to avoid any controversy in the United Kingdom, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Thursday.
The first 300,000 British-made doses landed at Sydney airport on February 28 – a month after the European Commission adopted curbs on the export of vaccines produced in the EU, the newspaper said.
Another large batch arrived on an Emirates passenger plane in March, well after Italy and the European Commission formally blocked an application by AstraZeneca to ship 250,000 doses to Australia, it added.
The EU blocked a shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines from leaving Italy for Australia last month, drawing on controversial export laws for the first time. Pictured: The first shipment of AstraZeneca arriving in Australia on February 28
The paper cited an unidentified British official as saying the shipments to Australia were never at the expense of Britain’s vaccine rollout, one of the world’s swiftest.
So far, three in five adults in the UK have been given at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine since the program began in late December.
While Britain has sent doses to overseas territories – such as Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands – Australia is thought to be the only separate country to receive AstraZeneca vaccines made in Britain.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock did not deny that AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines manufactured in the UK have been sent to Australia.
Mr Hancock told Sky News: ‘In terms of what the companies do, these companies are manufacturing for all around the world and we source from everywhere in the world, so what I’m in control of, what matters for us as the UK Government, is making sure that we get the supplies that we have got contracted from the companies.’
But he said the Government did not send the doses.
He said: ‘No, the British Government has a contract with seven companies now, but of course including AstraZeneca, for the delivery by AstraZeneca to the UK for us to deploy through the NHS, and that’s the bit I’m responsible for.’
A spokesman for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison declined to comment. A second source said Australia was reluctant to confirm or deny the report.
‘For reasons of supply chain integrity and national security, we do not advise the origins of particular vaccine shipments,’ said the source, who sought anonymity in the absence of authority to speak on the matter.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured speaking to Sky News) did not deny that AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines manufactured in the UK have been sent to Australia
AUSTRALIA’S VACCINE ROLLOUT
- 10 million doses will be available from early 2021
- These doses will be manufactured offshore
- Australia will have the option to purchase additional doses where supply is available
University of Oxford/AstraZeneca
- Australia has secured 53.8 million doses of this vaccine
- 3.8 million doses will be delivered to Australia in early 2021
- 50 million doses will be manufactured in Australia in monthly batches. CSL will manufacture these doses on behalf of AstraZeneca
- 51 million doses will be made available in Australia during 2021
The news of the shipment from the UK comes as concerns continue to be raised about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and as Australia considers banning the AstraZeneca vaccine from being given to people under 30 in line with British recommendations.
British regulators said young people should be offered alternative vaccines while experts investigate its link to rare blood clots.
Most Australians were to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine with the government securing 53.8 million doses, including 50 million to be manufactured locally.
The jab was declared safe by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and is an integral part of the nation’s slow-moving vaccine rollout – meaning there is no sure-fire way to demand another vaccine.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Health Minister Greg Hunt and state premiers have publicly backed the vaccine and urged Australians to get it.
However, the federal government has at the same time asked the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation to review the British findings.
‘The government has asked ATAGI and the TGA to immediately consider and advise on the latest vaccination findings out of Europe and the UK,’ it said.
‘Regulators have already been working with their international counterparts to consider the latest international evidence.’
Advice from the two bodies will be given to the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, comprised of the state and federal chief health officers.
A review by the UK’s drugs watchdog the MHRA found that by the end of March, a rate of just one in 250,000 Britons who received the AstraZeneca vaccine had suffered deadly blood clots in the brain or arteries.
Of the 79 cases, 19 died and three were under the age of 30.
Slides presented at a press conference announcing the change in guidance on Wednesday showed that younger people are more prone to blood clots after vaccination than older groups.
The MHRA said healthy people aged 19 to 29 should be offered either the Pfizer or Moderna jabs instead when the programme moves to younger groups in the coming months.
Anyone who has already had their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, regardless of their age, is being advised to go for their second appointment as planned.
AstraZeneca’s jab is only being paused for under-30s in Britain because coronavirus levels are getting low, said the nation’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam.
If Covid was still more prevalent, as it is in the rest of Europe, he suggested that the vaccine would still be recommended for all ages, including young people.
A spokesman for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (pictured on Wednesday) declined to comment on the shipment of vaccines from Britain
Australia is still owed 3.1 million doses from overseas, and on Wednesday demanded that the European Commission give the green light to doses that were blocked from being exported in March.
Also on Wednesday, a spokesman for the European Commission said Italy blocked the export because ‘AstraZeneca is not meeting its obligations in the EU’.
‘So far, the company has delivered much less than what was foreseen,’ the spokesperson said. ‘The pandemic continues to be very acute in the EU.’
Early last month, the EU was branded a ‘total disgrace’ and a ‘bully’ after it blocked an application for the 250,000-dose shipment of AstraZeneca to Down Under.
Officials in Rome informed the EU of its intention to act at the time, and Brussels did not object to the move.
Authorities in Italy used controversial export laws – approved by the EU in January to control doses leaving the bloc – to block the shipment, refusing to grant a licence for the doses manufactured in the country to be exported.
The EU gave itself the powers to do so after AstraZeneca failed to meed its contract with Brussels, resulting in a bitter dispute between post-Brexit Britain and the bloc.
European Leaders accused Britain of prioritising itself ahead of Europe’s 450 million people, with European Council President Charles Michel writing in early March that the UK had ‘imposed an outright ban on the export of vaccines or vaccine components produced on their territory’.
But with the news that 300,000 doses left the UK to Australia on February 28, his claim – which was heavily rebuked at the time – has been proven false.
The UK government was quick to deny Michel’s claim, has also repeatedly refused to say whether any vaccines had been sent abroad, and if so, to which countries.
Authorities in Italy used controversial export laws to block the shipment, refusing to grant a licence for the doses manufactured in the country to be exported. It came as the 27 member bloc’s own disastrous jab programme left its leaders – such as President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (pictured March 25) – red faced
The Italian foreign ministry said in a statement at the time that the batch was halted because of ‘continuing shortage of vaccines in the EU and in Italy and delays in supplies from AstraZeneca to the EU and Italy,’
Italy also argued Australia is not a high-risk country, with low case and death numbers, in stark contrast to countries overwhelmed by the pandemic.
The move came amid a row over vaccines leaving the EU to other nations, including the UK, while the 27 member bloc’s own disastrous jab programme left its leaders – such as President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen – red faced.
The decision led to anger from commentators worldwide, with critics accusing the EU of punishing Australia due to their own management failures during the pandemic.
The EU has been frustrated with a slow vaccine rollout and criticised AstraZeneca for a shortfall in delivering millions of doses.
However, the fact that Britain has been sending doses to Australia may go some way towards explaining why the EU blocked the export of 250,000 jabs.